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Click to view picture gallery“The Z4’s still-radical
  sharp-edged styling
  almost dares you
  to drive it. Accept the
  challenge and you’ll
  discover that beneath
  head-turning looks
  is a remarkable
  driving machine...

THE FIRST and very pleasant surprise, once you're inside the latest BMW Z4 Roadster, is the space. We're clearly not talking MPVs here, but the snug cabin somehow manages to feel wonderfully spacious with ample headroom and legroom and decent low-slung M-Sports seats set well back along the wheelbase. Strongly supporting the Z4's no-nonsense driving machine character is the refreshingly uncluttered, easy on the eye and easy to operate, brushed-aluminium dash.

It owes its geometric, near-minimalist look to functional ergonomics and neat, foolproof controls. Likewise, instrumentation is crisp and clear with a large 160mph speedometer and a matching rev-counter with fuel and temperature incorporated. Both are deeply cowled and set side-by-side dead ahead of the driver. The clean-cut ambience makes the cabin a pleasing place to spend your leisure. A handy trip computer, operated by a button at the tip of the indicator stalk,
shows key information (range, average speed, external temperate,
etc) in the speedometer display. All the switchgear, including the pleasant to use air-con rotary controls, have that 'clickety-click' quality feel.

A few things are vital to premium convertible buyers. Smouldering
go-for-it looks and an easily droppable top for a start. And, just like performance, faster is definitely preferable. Z4 owners won't be disappointed — the one-touch fully-automatic fabric hood disappears into its own well in the boot at the touch of a switch in under ten seconds. Actually, it's the world's fastest electrically-operated soft-top.

It's not surprising that convertible top-down times are almost as important as their top speeds. Because tops go up and down a lot more often than you get the opportunity to whiz up to the Z4's 142mph maximum speed.

The Z4 has always been a likeable sports car. Not least because it can be considered a serious rival to Mercedes' SLK but also because of its performance-optimised rear-wheel-drive and 50:50 weight distribution. The recent subtle and well-considered styling enhancements (front
and rear) to its sharply-sculpted lines — along with an improved specification and some new powerplants — have made it an even better proposition for keen drivers who enjoy the bonus of being behind the wheel of a head-turning roadster.

Open air aficionados now have a choice of ten Z4 models, ranging from the entry-level 148bhp 2.0-litre at £22,945 all the way to the flagship 339bhp Z4 M — with 63bhp more than a Porsche Boxster S and costing £42,750. A Z4 to appeal to a whole spectrum of performance tastes.

Desirable six-cylinder engines nicely cover the middle ground. Two 2.5-litre units — the torquey (170lb ft from 3,500-5,000rpm) 2.5i putting out a healthy 175bhp and the more powerful 2.5si that boasts 215bhp — topped by a 262bhp 3.0si. We tested the 2.5i Sport Roadster, for which you'd pay a few hundred pounds over £28,000.

For that you get M Sports suspension, double-spoke design M 18-inch alloy wheels, halogen headlamps, Hill Start Assistant, run-flat tyres with a tyre puncture warning system, fully-automatic power hood, M Sports seats upholstered in leather with fabric centre panels, powered and heated door mirrors, heated windscreen washer jets, very effective automatic air conditioning, one-touch open/close electric windows and a meaty M leather-trimmed steering wheel.

There is a lot about the Z4 that makes ownership a pleasure. For example, every time you check your door mirrors you get a great free-shot of the Roadster's shapely, sharply-creased rear haunches. And very nice they look, too. Move off from the kerb and you feel instantly 'tuned in' to the Z4, which blatantly invites you to check out its abilities.

Minimal cockpit distractions along with well-bolstered and very com-fortable, multi-adjustable sport-style seats — and a height-and-reach adjustable multi-function 3-spoke steering wheel with a chunky leather rim that is very satisfying to hold — will let you get on with the business of driving from the very first moment the Z4's smart double-spoke M-style alloys begin to roll. The straight-six is creamy and, as you'll quickly discover, stays smooth and eager when worked.

The all-alloy engine pulls cleanly from low revs, warbling a lovely six-cylinder melody. As the rev-counter's slim silver needle sweeps past the 3,000rpm marker it really gets into its stride to see the benchmark 0-62mph sprint reached in 7.1 seconds. Not only does the 2.5i have sufficient power to make the Z4 feel relaxed at motorway speeds — 70mph equates to just 2,750rpm in top gear — but it provides ample urge for quick overtaking and feels eager even when called on to accelerate from cruising speeds in fifth.

The six-speed manual 'box is good to use. The shift is clean with a shortish throw and the gate well-defined — a welcome change from the trend that, like mobile 'phone buttons, has seen some manufact-urers fitting smaller, narrow gates with the result that you occasionally find yourself, clutch about to come up, horribly unsure as to which gear you've just selected. No such problems with the Z4. The clutch action is light but nicely weighted and the gear lever snicks through the ratios adding pleasure and involving you with every shift.

The Z4 has electric power steering that works well, making the Z4 light to steer yet reassuringly accurate to place. There are better levels of feedback — particularly when the straights turn to twists — than you may have expected when you first read the word 'electric'.

Grip levels are good, too, helped by the standard-fitment, run-flat Bridgestone Potenzas (225/40 up front and 255/35 at the rear). Using run-flats allows for different front and rear tyre pairings and means no space eaten up in the boot by a spare or even a 'quick-fix' puncture repair kit. Instead you get a tyre monitoring system. Surprisingly, the lo-pro Bridgestones don't kick up too much road noise.

On the move the Z4 Sport feels poised and agile, and agreeably reluctant to oversteer at the limit — a good thing when you're on real roads amongst real traffic. This is partly down to the latest version of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control+ (BMW says it is the most advanced form of traction control system currently available in the world) which holds off the stability control system's intervention a tad longer so
the driver can safely influence his (or her) cornering line using the accelerator without getting ragged. However, if you do enjoy wagging your rear-end in public or if you're trackdaying, turn off the traction control and you can play drift-the-tail.

The Roadster's front suspension is a proven spring strut structure with forged aluminium track control arms and twin sleeve gas-pressure spring struts. The rear suspension features BMW's competent multi-link 'Z' rear axle set-up also with twin-sleeve gas pressure dampers.
And ensuring the suspension has a good platform to work from is an extremely rigid body shell — despite being a full-blown convertible,
the Z4 is actually stiffer than many saloons. The Sports suspension set-up lowers the ride height by 15mm and provides decent damping compliance with a noticeable resistance to roll, that on challenging back roads rewards the driver with excellent composure. Try it for yourself — third gear's a real zinger!

The result is a focussed attitude through the bends and corners with a good apex-exiting posture that lets you get the power back on hard and fast. If you wanted a real sports car and you've bought a Sport-specified Z4 you shouldn't find anything to complain about with the Z4's ride which, given its fine handling dynamics, is reasonably smooth most of the time. And although it never becomes uncomfortable, you do know when you're traversing poorly maintained roads. Run-flat tyres usually get the blame — but maybe we should hold out for the same top-quality road surfaces that they have in Germany!

One of the real joys of driving a convertible is that you never feel obliged to 'perform'. Sit in a frantic three-car-wide stream of fast moving traffic in a tin-top saloon and you sometimes feel you have to keep up. Not in a roadster, you don't. Of course, it's there if you want it. But it's just so satisfying to chill and cruise at your own speed —
a steady 50mph if that's what suits — and soak up the sun, the view and the breeze.

Top stowed neatly out of sight behind the seats, there's sufficient protection from the wind to prevent driver and passenger feeling blown about. Hood down, side windows up, windblocker in place between the angular rear roll-over hoops — especially by moonlight instead of sun — anybody can appreciate why piloting a convertible is one of life's little pleasures. Worth a special mention is the air conditioning, which really is effective even with the roof down. Top up, the Z4 looks acceptably coupé-ish.

And when it comes to slowing down, the Z4 is as good as they come. Stamp on the brakes in an emergency and the car pulls up straight as a die in a very short distance. Try it at 50mph, and it almost takes your breath away. On the move the disc brakes — vented at the front — are responsive and easily modulated with a nice feel through the pedal. DSC+, as already mentioned, is fitted as standard and builds on the already accomplished DSC system to offer five additional safety enhancements.

Brake Pre-tensioning shortens stopping distances by priming the brakes if the driver instinctively lifts off the accelerator in preparation for an emergency stop. In wet weather conditions a film of water can build up on the disc, hindering stopping power: Brake Drying overcomes this, improving wet-weather braking performance by periodically gently applying the pads to the discs. You're never aware of it, but this slight braking action removes this film and ensures optimum retardation. Also new is the Hill Start Assistant which allows the driver of a manual transmission car to pull away smoothly on a gradient without having to balance the clutch and the throttle. The brake pressure is maintained for the time it takes to move the foot from brake to accelerator, preventing the car from rolling backwards.

Other benefits of DSC+ include Fade Compensation which applies additional braking without any extra effort from the driver. Following very spirited driving, the brakes may experience some fade due to excessive heat build-up. Fade Compensation means the pads still bite the disc for optimum stopping power. Finally, Soft Stop contributes to a smoother journey for driver and passenger — a small proportion of braking pressure is released as the car comes to a standstill, thereby minimising the likelihood for a sharp, halting stop. It works, but it's so subtle you'd never know.

The Z4's cabin protects its occupants with twin front and side airbags and, more obviously, substantial architectural roll-over bars which
also provide — a thoughtful touch — built-in coat hanger hooks! Also safety-related but not forgotten by BMW — a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher, located under the front of, respectively, the passenger's and the driver's seat. And, to keep your hands clean for the leather M steering wheel, there is an electric oil level check. Yet another good safety idea that you'll never see are brake lights that illuminate more
of the reflector surface the sharper you brake.

And the Z4's not exactly going to break the bank when it comes to running costs, either. With a claimed combined consumption of 33.6 mpg on the combined cycle and 44.8mpg on the extra-urban cycle, plus variable interval servicing, running costs wouldn't appear to add
up to too much. At the end of five hundred miles of mixed motoring, including a lot of town driving, we recorded an overall 26.1mpg.

Storage is adequate for a compact two-seater, with enough room for
a week's luggage or some golf clubs — the 240-litre boot can be expanded to 260 litres by twisting two knobs in the boot when the hood is up (you also gain 3 inches of extra height). Refinement both roof up and roof down is good enough to make the Z4 something you can happily use every day. Door pockets are slim but there is a useful lidded upright storage locker between the seat backs as well as
two open cubbies hidden by the seat backrests. The centre unit is, conveniently, automatically locked when you secure the car.

Underscoring its masculine nature, men account for more than two thirds of Z4 buyers. The biggest age group of owners falls into the 30 to 39-year-old bracket with an average Z4-owning household income of £72,000. Whatever the statistics, here at MotorBar both the guys and the ladies thoroughly enjoyed driving it.

So, for under £30K you get a stylish sports car with a prestige 'blue propeller' badge, good equipment and impressive handling with perform-ance that's entertaining to experience and that doesn't cost an arm and a leg to run. Could you ask for more?

WELL, SUGGESTS BMW Audio Books, perhaps a 'road-time' story to drive by? Inspired by the success of its innovative series
of internet-based short films under
'The Hire' banner, BMW is now entering another new media arena with audio books. The four debut short stories mix the best in BMW product with contemporary original literature.

The stories have been designed to be experienced while driving, with the average length of 45 minutes per story to match the average driver's commute. The first of the four stories features the BMW Z4. Don Winslow's 'Beautiful Ride' was launched on 7 February, 2006, three weeks before the car's European debut at the Geneva Motor Show. Further tales by Karin Slaughter, James Flint and Simon Kernick featuring the BMW X3, 1 Series and 7 Series have also been produced.

BMW Audio Books are available for free download via Users can then burn their own CDs and/or load the content to their iPods or other MP3 players. All BMWs feature Business radios and single CD players with MP3 capability and all BMWs can be adapted to play iPod-stored material.

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BMW Z4 2.5i Sport Roadster
| £28,260
Maximum speed: 142mph | 0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.1mpg | Power: 175
bhp | Torque: 170lb ft

---------------------------------------------------------------- BMW Z4 2.5i Sport